John Murray, £7.99, 277pp. £7.59 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
What I Did, By Christopher Wakling
Friday 17 February 2012
From Molesworth to Adrian Mole, English literature is crammed with memorable schoolboy narrators. In his fifth novel, Christopher Wakling takes us back even further, acting as ventriloquist to the kindergarten classes with a horribly plausible journey into the mind of a six-year-old boy. Billy Wright, the book's pint-sized narrator, isn't on the special needs spectrum, nor is he intentionally difficult. It's just the "electricity" he feels "fizzing" in his arms and legs that compels him to tip back on chairs and slam into walls. One weekday morning, this same energy causes him to slip out from under his father's grasp and make a dash across a busy main road. Billy's father, already irritated after an incident in a coffee shop, pulls down his son's trousers and smacks him across the buttocks "very, very, very hard". As in Christos Tsiolkas's novel, The Slap, the ensuing drama is less about politically incorrect parenting than how a family copes with the fall-out of a very public violation.
Billy's slap is witnessed by a concerned bystander who informs social services. A visit from a child protection officer follows, and thanks to a series of tragicomic coincidences - inadvertently orchestrated by Billy - the family's nightmare begins. Billy's incomplete understanding of the world, the universe and everything in it only serves to underscore the bigger picture. In Wakling's hands, life at boy-level becomes a vivid and contradictory place to live.
Enriching Billy's malapropic musings - "God is a segment of the imagination"; "Dad makes porridge with golden stirrups" - is his encyclopaedic knowledge of the animal kingdom. With the help of old David Attenborough DVDs, he attempts to classify his own family's behavioural ticks. His mother becomes a prairie dog – "she's never tiring!" – while his cousin, Lizzie, is an owl: "she does have huge eyes and she doesn't say anything much except oooh."
Life in a small head can start to feel claustrophobic for even the most patient reader, but Wakling ratchets up the narrative tension by challenging us to identify the real monster of the piece. Is it Billy's father - whose angry reprimand "Son!" slices through the text – or Billy himself, who knows enough to understand that his dad is "quite pleased" when he has a "proper reason" to be cross with him. This is an authro who captures parent-child relations in the raw, and a primeval love that even the most well-meaning social worker can't tame.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 2 Michelle Obama highlights harsh restrictions faced by Saudi women after meeting King Salman without wearing a headscarf
- 3 Amal Clooney gives excellent answer to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 4 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 5 Isis publicly behead man in Syrian town square for 'insulting Allah' as he screams for help
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
The Jump 2015 line-up: Joey Essex, Phil Tufnell, Heather Mills and co take to the slopes
Game of Thrones season 5: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as it’s not him
Grumpy Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures